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Tucson Weekly The Mysterious Malick

Only A Hollywood Legend Could Pull Off John Travolta, Julia Roberts And The Pacific Theater In One Smooth Career Move

By James DiGiovanna

JANUARY 25, 1999:  FOR THE LAST 20 years, writer/director Terence Malick has seemed more like some kind of Hollywood urban legend than an actual person. The director of the critically acclaimed Badlands and Days of Heaven, he suddenly, and without explanation, left filmmaking and nearly vanished from the world after the completion of the latter film in 1978. There were rumors of Malick working as a dishwasher, hitch-hiking around the country, writing under pseudonyms, and being sighted like the undead Elvis.

During his sojourn in the land of myth, there was endless speculation about why anyone with such an extreme talent for cinema would just pack it in. It was one of the great Hollywood mysteries, until John Travolta, a few weeks ago, explained it. Apparently, at least according to Travolta, who would be found out quickly if he were lying, mind you, but still...anyway, according to Travolta, Malick stopped making movies because the studio told him he couldn't cast Travolta as the lead in Days of Heaven, and would have to cast Richard Gere instead. If this story is true, it merits the biggest "Huh?" in Hollywood history. But that's what's so charming about Malick: It's easy to relate to the disappointment he must have felt; but to pack up all that cinematic talent and walk away from what had become one of the most revered careers in filmmaking....

It probably takes someone with a singular emotional makeup to create such striking films as Badlands, Days of Heaven and The Thin Red Line. Oddly, now that he's completed this latest work, he's already begun another, The Moviegoer, starring Tim Robbins and Julia Roberts, and apparently based on the Walker Percy novel of the same name. But again, for a filmmaker who prizes subtlety as much as Malick does to take on Julia Roberts, who essentially acts with her teeth, one can only warrant a bewildered, "Huh?"

Nonetheless, despite or perhaps because of his quirky emotional nature, Malick has again made an incredibly beautiful film that succeeds on many levels, and fails on a few others.

The Thin Red Line, like Malick's life, is extremely difficult to explain but intensely engaging in its unfolding. It tells the tale of the second-wave assault on Gaudalcanal, one of the most grueling battles in the Pacific Theater of Operations during WWII. Beginning with a beautiful and playful sequence showing two AWOL soldiers reveling in the romantically natural life of a small Melanesian village, The Thin Red Line tries to introduce an Edenic counterpart to the coming battle scenes.

In the hands of most filmmakers, this would quickly become corny; but in spite of the sustained shots of rainforest canopy and the naively philosophical voice-overs from one of the soldiers, it fails to elicit any eye-rolling. By being extremely forced this style seems natural--it's so removed from the ordinary manner of filmmaking that what would be a cliché situation is merely striking in its oddity.

The AWOL soldiers are soon reunited with their company, and a parade of stars appear in minor roles, emphasizing, perhaps, the insignificance of individual soldiers in such a massive enterprise. Sean Penn, George Clooney, Ben Chaplin, Woody Harrelson, John Cusak, Elias Koteas, Jared Leto, Nick Nolte, John Savage, John Travolta, Bill Pullman, Mickey Rourke, and Lukas Haas all drift through the battles, some of them barely speaking a line.

This overwhelming incursion of industrialized Americans into the previously idyllic Pacific island is shown with eerie acuity in a scene of soldiers marching up a forested hill. As they trudge in an endless line through tall grass, a single Melanesian man in traditional garb walks past them in the opposite direction. Malick leaves this scene, and many others, without dialogue or extraneous commentary, and it gains force from the frightened, tired, confused and numbed expressions of the soldiers heading into almost certain death.

Odd bits of voice-over flit through other scenes, with one of the lead characters noting that "God is the source of all boredom." Trying to show this boredom both precedes and follows battle, and in so doing Malick makes his one misstep: While it works up to the first gunshot, after the intensity of a long battle sequence the inclusion of another long period of inactivity is hard to justify. Consequently, the final hour of this three-hour film seems somewhat unnecessary. Malick uses this final section to show that the soldiers had romanticized nature and the Melanesians, and to show the ways in which their battle experiences made it harder for them to see the jungle as a primal paradise. Unfortunately, this message is diminished by its placement after a complicated and intense series of battle scenes.

John Savage shines here as a soldier who breaks during battle, and has to keep reading his dogtags, perhaps to see who he is. Other soldiers lose control of their bodies, or run madly into fire, or are horrified at having sent their troops in the wrong direction. The chaos and force of war is shown, not by focusing on one soldier or group of soldiers, or by presenting the field of battle as a whole, but by focusing on dozens of unrelated, individual human acts. This gives the sequences a disturbing intensity without sacrificing the vastness of the battle.

Malick's film also stands out from other war films in the way he deals with the enemy. One of the most unethical elements of many war films is the treatment of the opposing army as a faceless body of monsters.

Malick is extremely aware of this tradition, and the first appearance of the Japanese soldiers comes in the form of silhouettes on a hillside. One of the soldiers shoots one, then rejoices and is disturbed in his kill.

Later, the Japanese soldiers are represented only by hands on guns; and after that, as shadowy close-ups of faces. As more time passes, the soldiers come into focus, screaming and running toward the American troops, fully visible as warriors. Then, as the Americans begin to advance, they encounter Japanese soldiers holding wounded comrades. Some are naked, or armed only with knives, trying to defend their injured compatriots. At last there are mounds of dead and dying Japanese soldiers, begging for life, cursing the Americans, or sitting in desperate prayer.

It's the slow revelation of the enemy's humanity, and the variety of ways that the Japanese soldiers react to the Americans, that sets Thin Red Line apart from so many other efforts in this genre. While there have been films that have tried to say that the enemy is "just like us," The Thin Red Line maintains a strong sense of difference between the American and Japanese troops while still showing the Japanese as individuated, human, sometimes fragile, sometimes fearsome.

This sensitivity to difference, and the original way in which it is expressed, is only one of many elements that recommend The Thin Red Line. The cinematography, as in all of Malick's films, is strong enough to withstand slow shots and long moments of silence. The music, which is used sparingly, is never invasive or manipulative (the soundtrack is by Hans Zimmer, who has gained a strong cult following in the last 15 years). The acting--especially by Penn, Koteas and James Caviezel, who get the most screen time--is impeccable and conveys the disturbing sense of being an invader in paradise with a short lease on life. If it weren't for the final hour's attempts to add another face to this already highly faceted work, The Thin Red Line would be a nearly perfect film.

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